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Ginsburg Undergoes Surgery For Cancer

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The Supreme Court says Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had surgery Thursday after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Video by AP

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By Carrie Johnson and Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery yesterday in New York for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease.

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Ginsburg, who received a diagnosis of colon cancer nearly 10 years ago, had experienced no symptoms from the pancreatic cancer, which apparently was found at an early stage during a routine checkup last month, according to a statement issued by the court.

The 75-year-old justice will be hospitalized for a week to 10 days at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, attending surgeon Murray F. Brennan told court officials.

Pancreatic cancer is diagnosed in more than 37,000 Americans each year and more than 34,000 die of the disease, according to the American Cancer Society. One of the reasons is that there is no easy way to spot the illness early and it usually does not cause symptoms until it has spread. The cancer is detected early in only about 7 percent of cases.

If pancreatic cancer is discovered at an early stage, treatment usually consists of surgery and chemotherapy, which can extend survival and relieve symptoms but "seldom produces a cure," according to the society. About 24 percent of patients survive one year after diagnosis and 5 percent survive years, the society said.

Ginsburg's outlook could be on the more optimistic end of the spectrum, because her tumor was relatively small and was found during a routine scan.

"She has a much better chance than most of the other typical patients to be cured of this," said Paul P. Lin, a pancreatic surgeon at George Washington University.

The fact that doctors decided to operate is a good sign, several experts said. For most patients with pancreatic cancer, the tumor is discovered too late to make surgery helpful.

"She's fairly lucky," said Sarah Thayer, a pancreatic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Thayer said the cancer shows up in 80 percent of patients "when it is no longer operable and there's no chance. She's luckier than lucky because it's a relatively small tumor."

But pancreatic tumors tend to have spread even when detected early, Lin and others said. Doctors will probably assess Ginsburg's course of treatment after examining tissue removed in the surgery, including lymph nodes, Lin said. It is often more difficult to remove a tumor from a pancreas than other areas because the organ is located behind the stomach and surrounds key arteries and veins.

The exact location of the tumor would have determined how extensive an operation was necessary, Thayer said. If the tumor was in the "head" of the pancreas, a much more complicated procedure known as the Whipple would have been needed. That procedure involves the removal of part of the small intestine, bile duct, gallbladder and perhaps part of the stomach, she said.

A Supreme Court spokeswoman said that a CT scan Ginsburg had at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda in late January detected a small tumor, "approximately one centimeter across, in the center of the pancreas."


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